And make no mistake, we are living in a time of P.R. ascendance. In their recent book, The Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols estimate that, even in the 1970s, when newspapers were in their heyday, the percentage of news generated from press releases was in the 40 percent to 50 percent range, a fair-enough guess. Since then, while journalism has withered, P.R. has bloomed like a rash. The authors document that in 1980, the ratio of P.R. people to news reporters was manageable, about 0.45 P.R. specialists and managers per 100,000 population to about 0.36 journalists. Today, P.R. towers over journalism, with 0.90 pros per 100,000 to just 0.25 journalists.
In Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece, cited above, White House officials expressed dismay at how little time reporters have to talk to them. “Everything is rushed,” Auletta writes, and quotes then White House Communications Director Anita Dunn. “‘When journalists call you to discuss a story, it’s not because they’re interested in having a discussion. They’re interested in a response. And the need to file five times a day encourages this.’” It encourages leaning on P.R., too.
A sense of empowerment comes through in the tone of P.R. professionals. When Mark Pittman, Bloomberg’s late, great investigative reporter, asked for information on where the AIG bailout money went, here was the response:
Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said, “The Fed had the lead on this one: It’s their loan. I don’t know how I could be more clear.”
Why are you bothering us about a few dozen billion unprecedented secret U.S. government bailout dollars?
“[Y]ou should call AIG,” said Fed spokesman Calvin Mitchell. “I doubt that we will be talking about AIG’s CDO portfolio.”
Run along, big fella.
As it happens, Pittman, and The New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson a couple of days earlier, revealed the recipients of that bailout money: Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street investment banks. But Pittman and Morgenson aren’t on the Wheel. They are arguments against the Wheel. This leads to Hamster Rule 4, or what I like to call “The Paradox of the Wheel.”
4. The Wheel never sets the news agenda, it only responds to the agendas of others
The Paradox of the Wheel is that, for all the activity it generates, the Wheel renders news organizations deeply passive. The greater the need for copy, the more dependent reporters are on sources for scoops and pitiful scraps of news. In a 2000 study in the British academic journal Journalism, researchers analyzed news articles about a hostile takeover that would involve a massive restructuring in the hotel and leisure business to demonstrate that almost everything printed about the event was drawn from competing P.R. campaigns aimed at a few institutional shareholders, while the interests of individual shareholders, 80,000 employees, millions of customers, and British taxpayers (big tax subsidies were involved) were ignored. The press was, in effect, “captured” on a Hamster Wheel of press campaigns. The author, Aeron Davis, made the commonsense observation that P.R. dominance “worked to block unwelcome mainstream coverage, exclude non-corporate voices, and helped to define the boundaries of corporate ‘elite discourse networks.’”
In other words, if news organizations don’t set the agenda, someone else will.
5. The Wheel isn’t free
The costs are in literate prose, proven premises, news that did not originate from an institution, and other airy-fairy things that build credibility and value over the long term. This is about resource allocation. Back in the Pleistocene Era, 2003, The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden convinced someone to allow him to review a 1998 document of sensitive academic information from the Groton School, the tony boarding school in Massachusetts. It revealed that one Margaret Bass, who was the only one of nine Groton applicants to get into Stanford that year, actually had an SAT score—1220—that was considerably lower than seven of the eight other students from her class who unsuccessfully applied to Stanford. Golden explained:
But Ms. Bass had an edge: Her father, Texas tycoon Robert Bass, was chairman of Stanford’s board and had given $25 million to the university in 1992. Mr. Bass has a degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He and his wife, Anne, are both Groton trustees.
Groton’s headmaster told Golden that the document was not an “official school record.” So how did Golden know it was accurate? He called twenty other students whose information was in the document. The story was part of a series that won a Pulitzer, but more importantly, it changed perceptions about affirmative action.
The Wheel doesn’t do that. It’s worth noting that Golden’s Pulitzer wasn’t for investigation, but for beat reporting.
6. The Wheel pays the bills—or does it?